Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Responsibility to protect Libyans from our own governments

As Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi turns to state terrorism to suppress democracy movements, some are calling on outside military intervention to protect the people of Libya. But the revolutionary movement across the region is shining a light on the roots of violence and developing alternative methods of achieving peace. 

     The thrill of revolutionary movements sweeping across North Africa and the Middle East has been matched by the horror of counter-revolution, as dictators violently cling to power. The people of Tunisia and Egypt braved tear gas, rocks and riot police to oust Ben Ali and Mubarak, and their courageous example has inspired people in Algeria, Bahrain, Djibouti, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Morocco, Oman, and Yemen to do the same. But the violent response is also escalating. Horrific images have emerged from Bahrain of protesters getting shot to death, while reports from Libya indicate Gaddafi is using snipers, 
helicopters and planes against demonstrators and entire cities, while jamming electric signals to create a media blackout.
     In desperation some are looking to the UN Security Council to intervene militarily. But Western states are cynically using a situation they created to push for further imperial control over the region, undermining the blossoming resistance movements that offer real hope for the region. In the US, Paul Wolfowitz, one of the architects of the Iraq War and current “scholar” at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute, has called on “the U.S. and U.N. to mobilize to stop the slaughter” while the Wall Street Journal has been more explicit in its strategy of “liberating Libya” with threats to “bombs their airfields”. Meanwhile the British publication Foreign Policy carries an article declaring:
“It is time for the United States, NATO, the United Nations and the Arab League to act forcefully to try to prevent the already bloody situation from degenerating into something much worse.”
But calling for external intervention ignores the external source of violence, and undermines the internal movements for peace. 
     Photos from the Egyptian Revolution provided a link between Mubarak and his Western backers, as protesters dodged tear-gas canisters with “made in USA” imprinted on them. Now Libyans are fighting against European weapons. According to Britain’s Campaign Against the Arms Trade:
“In the third quarter of 2010, equipment approved for export [from Britain to Libya] included wall and door breaching projectile launchers, crowd control ammunition, small arms ammunition, tear gas/irritant ammunition, training tear gas/irritant ammunition. Ammunition comprised £3.2m of the £4.7m million of military items licensed. Sniper rifles were among the other equipment licensed in 2010.”
 Meanwhile, another report notes:
"EU countries just two years ago granted over €160 million of export licences to Libya for small arms and electronic jamming equipment… Italy granted €107.7 million of licences for military aircraft, including assault craft, and associated equipment. France granted €17.5 million worth and Portugal €14.5 million. Portugal also granted €4.6 million of permits for drones. Other licences of note include: €4.4 million of Belgian permits for anti-personnel chemicals used to quell riots and €2.6 million of Italian licences for bomb fuses."
The US has its Fifth Fleet in Bahrain and in recent years has taken an interest in selling weapons to Daddafi. As David Hamod, president and chief executive of the National U.S.-Arab Chamber of Commerce justified in 2009, “Libya is going to seek defense articles from somebody. And I think it's in America's interest to be the provider ... It's an integral part of the growing relationship." This is part of a policy for the region that has continued under Obama. As the World Tribune reported in July 2010:
"The White House agreed to requests worth $500 million by Egypt, Oman and Tunisia for air defense upgrade, aircraft and naval ship support as well as helicopters...The biggest request was submitted by Tunisia. The North African state received administration approval to upgrade U.S.-origin helicopters in a deal estimated at $282 million."
Then in September 2010 the biggest arms deal in US history provided $60  billion of weapons to the Saudi dictatorship. Canada has also joined in the arms trade, with both Liberal and Conservative governments selling to repressive regimes across North Africa and the Middle East—for details visit this interactive guide by Canada's Coalition to Oppose the Arms Trade.

     Political support for repressive regimes has accompanied military support, from Canada's Conservative government inviting Mubarak to last summer’s G8 meeting, to the World Economic Forum dubbing Gaddafi’s son a “Young Global Leader”. These geopolitical alliances can’t be divorced from the oil contracts that accompany them. From Afghanistan to Colombia to Libya to Saudi Arabia, militarism and oil reserves overlap. Libya has the largest oil reserves in Africa—which is being exploited by Western corporations from Britain’s BP to Canada’s Suncor. While oil companies and their state sponsors were fine with Gaddafi’s stable dictatorship, they are anxious about its current instability. “Half of Libya’s oil production shut down”, exclaimed the Financial Times. According to Amrita Sen of Barclays Capital, “destabilisation in the Arab world, home to the world’s largest oil and gas reserves and production, is of extreme significance.”

     Members of the UN Security Council not only cause indirect violence through weapons sales to repressive regimes, but have a clear track record of direct violence--against people living in both dictatorships and democracies. In 2001 the crimes of the Taliban (a former US ally) were used as justification for a NATO invasion and occupation of Afghanistan that after a decade has done nothing to improve the lives of the people of Afghanistan. In 2003 the crimes of Saddam Hussein (a former US ally) were used as justification for a US and British invasion and occupation that has killed hundreds of thousands and stoked sectarian divisions. In 2004 the US, France and Canada launched a coup against Haiti's democratically elected President Aristide, and since then a Brazil-led UN occupation has interfered with democracy and development, magnifying the effects of last year’s earthquake and setting the stage for a cholera epidemic. The UN Security Council stood by as Israel (which it arms) attacked Lebanon in 2006 and Gaza in 2008. 
     In the wake of the Egyptian revolution, British Prime Minister David Cameron laid to rest any notion that Western leaders care about peace and democracy, as he went on a tour of the Middle East accompanied by arms dealers, greeting the military junta that currently rules Egypt in the wake of Mubarak’s departure. As the Daily Mail reported:
Cameron meets with Tantawi, "Mubarak's poodle"
"Critics expressed amazement that Mr Cameron was promoting a mission to sell arms to Arab dictators shortly after Colonel Gaddafi may have used British weapons to kill hundreds of his fellow countrymen in Libya. They accused Mr Cameron of using a high-profile visit to Cairo’s Tahrir Square – Ground Zero in the Egyptian popular uprising – as a fig leaf for peddling military equipment."
A clear way to reduce violence in the Middle East is for Western governments to stop killing people indirectly through weapons sales, or directly through occupations. If there is a "responsibility to protect" it is by building movements in the West to end our own government's arms sales and occupations.
      By doing so we strengthen resistance movements across the Arab world, as the 2003 protests against the Iraq War strengthened the Egyptian resistance against Mubarak. The emerging revolutionary wave is now developing alternative methods of regime change, including soldiers refusing to fight. Whereas the imperial toppling of Saddam Hussein killed hundreds of thousands, stoked sectarian divisions and set up massive permanent military bases, the democratic toppling of Hosni Mubarak was infinitely more peaceful, created unity between Christians and Muslims, and opened up cracks in the military as ordinary soldiers refused to attack protesters and joined the demonstrations. A similar process is happening in Libya, where tribes that Gaddafi once pitted against each other are overcoming their divisions and uniting against him, and war resisters are emerging—including two fighter pilots who flew to Malta rather than follow orders to bomb Benghazi. Egyptian and Libyan war resisters join the ranks of Israeli refuseniks who won’t participate in brutalizing Palestinians, US and British war resisters who refuse to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a proud history of war resisters from WWI to Vietnam.
     Ordinary workers have contributed to the military’s collapse. In Tunisia war resisters refused to fire on demonstrators, and a general strike turned even the military high command against Ben Ali. In Egypt Mubarak tried to outlast protesters in Tahrir Square, but when their political protest ignited workers economic protest—including strikes in military production facilities—the military high command turned against Mubarak. 
     A similar process across the region—with mass political protest triggering mass strikes and splitting the military—would topple more tyrants, expose their Western supporters, and undermine imperial control of the region. Hence the right-wing cry of intervention, which would not only allow Gaddafi to cast himself as a defender of the country but would disrupt these emerging mass movements. But if people in the West can protect people in the region from our own governments, and revolutionary movements can continue to deepen and involve soldiers and workers, then there's a chance to liberate Libya and the entire region by seizing on the Achilles heel of militarism, expressed so clearly by Bertold Brecht:

General, your tank
is a powerful vehicle
it smashes down forests
& crushes a hundred men.
but it has one defect:
it needs a driver.

General, your bomber is powerful
it flies faster than a storm
& carries more than an elephant.
but it has one defect:
it needs a mechanic.

General, man is very useful.
He can fly & he can kill.
but he has one defect:
He can think.

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